Monday 5 October 2020

Movie Review: Hostiles (2017)

A soulful western, Hostiles combines the traditions of the arduous journey with a lyrical exploration of troubled relations between whites and natives.

In 1892 at Fort Berringer in New Mexico, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is selected to escort ailing Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his ancestral lands in Montana. Blocker is close to retirement, and has built a fearsome reputation as a merciless fighter and killer of natives. He resents having to be civil to Yellow Hawk, who has a similar record of brutal killing, including scalping several of Blocker's colleagues.

Blocker recruits a few trusted soldiers for the mission, including long-term friends Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is also nearing retirement, and Corporal Woodson (Jonathan Majors), as well as West Point graduate Lieutenant Kidder (Jesse Plemons) and raw recruit Private Dejardin (Timothée Chalamet). Yellow Hawk is accompanied by his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), daughter, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter.

Soon after embarking on the trip they encounter settler Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) in shock having just lost her entire family, including three children, to a vicious raid by a Cherokee war party. Rosalee joins Blocker's group, with many dangers to come on the long trail to Montana.

With chapters of brutal violence committed by all sides, some shown on screen and others described in hushed tones, Hostiles stares at the blood-drenched legacy of the west. After each bout of blood-letting director and writer Scott Cooper takes the time to include reverent burials, settlers, soldiers, natives, adults and children laid to rest in mounting numbers, often in unmarked graves, the hard soil of a nation-in-progress nourished by death. 

At 133 minutes, the film is long but Cooper sustains the intensity. Having established the barbarous context, Hostiles searches for what may emerge after the visceral need to kill subsides. Men like Blocker, Metz and Yellow Hawk are retiring or dying and understand they are too damaged to evolve. The next generation, personified by Lieutenant Kidder and Black Hawk and his family, may be a lot less blood thirsty, with fewer scores to settle and more capacity to achieve reconciliation, but only if they survive to forge a better future.

And Cooper ensures the moral dilemmas leave no room for black and white resolutions, only gray choices. Some horrific killings are justified as part of the job, other rampages are denounced as murder and punished by hanging. Violence in the name of protecting land is either noble or ignominious, depending on who is making the claim, and when. On such vagaries men live, die and judge themselves and others.

Although some chapters stumble and hints of repetitiveness set in, the film weaves an always unsettling sombre mood. Max Richter's music score adds poignant tones, and often stunning Masanobu Takayanagi cinematography captures majestic landscapes of untamed and unforgiving terrain.

Christian Bale delivers a performance of sometimes frightening intensity and stoic masculinity, conveying with his eyes the horrors of a life spent killing etched firmly on his psyche. But Bale also captures the irresistible forces of change in his humane approach to helping Mrs. Quaid and a gradual willingness to understand Yellow Hawk's world. The rest of the cast is suitably detached, and includes Ben Foster as an army soldier turned prisoner and Scott Wilson as an uncompromising landowner.

Dark, humourless and thought-provoking, Hostiles confronts all enemies, especially those lurking within.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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